Hacking a $100 Signal Generator

Signal generators are a useful piece of kit to have on your electronics bench. The downside is that they tend to be rather expensive. If you have $100 to drop on a new toy, the MHS-5200A is a low cost, two channel, 25 MHz generator that can be found on eBay.

The downside is the software. It’s an ugly Windows interface that’s a pain to use. The good news is that [wd5gnr] reverse engineered the protocol so you don’t have to. This means other software can be developed to control the device.

When connected to a computer, this function generator shows up as a virtual USB serial port. The documentation that [wd5gnr] assembled lists all the serial commands you can send, and what they do. If you aren’t into manually setting waveforms from a serial terminal (who is?) there’s a tool for doing that automatically on Github. This takes in a CSV file describing a waveform, and programs the generator to make it for you.

The software is also compatible with Waveform Manager Plus, a free GUI tool for defining waveforms. Putting this all together, you can have a pretty capable waveform generator for less than $100.

Wirelessly Weighing Plants with the ESP8266

There’s a good number of hacks, and commercial products, for telling you when a plant needs watering. Most of them use an ADC to measure the resistance in the soil. As the soil’s moisture content drops, the resistance increases. High impedance, dead plant.

[Dani]’s Thirsdee takes a different approach to plant health monitoring. Instead of measuring resistance, it simply weighs the plant. As the soil dries up, it gets lighter. By measuring the change in weight, the amount of water in the pot can be estimated.

Thirsdee uses a load cell to measure the weight. It’s read using an HX711 ADC, which is controlled by a NodeMCU. This development board is based on the ESP8266 chip. Since Thirsdee has WiFi, it can push notifications to your phone and log data on ThingSpeak. If you’re looking at the plant, an OLED shows you the current status of the plant. For us viewing from home, we can see a graph of [Dani]’s plant drying out in real time.

[Dani] provides us with a list of suppliers for the parts, and all the source code on Github.

Downdraft Fume Extractor Saves Your Lungs

When you’re soldering, smoke rises from your iron. That smoke is full of a variety of chemicals, depending on what type of solder you’re using, but it’s almost certainly not good for you. That’s why you can buy fume extractors to suck smoke away.

But benchtop extractors tend to suck, and not in the way they’re supposed to. It can be hard to get the extractor to pick up all the fumes, leaving fumes that float into your face.

Over at Other Machine Co., they built up a custom downdraft fume extractor to solve this problem. The downdraft extractor is a table that you work on, providing downwards suction that grabs the fumes. Their table uses a standard MERV13 air filter that’s rated to trap particles as small as 1.0–0.3 μm. Cooling fans provide the airflow, and a piece of perforated sheet metal acts as a work surface.

The table works great for soldering, and is also helpful for working with other chemicals like adhesives and solvents. DXF files for the frame parts are provided, and everything else can be sourced from McMaster.

Astoundingly Great $60 3D Printer called Chimera Bests Your Printer

When most people think of 3D printing, they think of Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) printers. These work by heating a material, squirting it out a nozzle that moves around, and letting it cool. By moving the nozzle around in the right patterns while extruding material out the end, you get a part. You’ve probably seen one of the many, many, many FDM printers out there.

Stereolithography printing (SLA) is a different technique which uses UV light to harden a liquid resin. The Chimera printer uses this technique, and aims to do it on the cheap by using recycled parts.

First up is the UV light source. DLP projectors kick out a good amount of UV, and accept standard video inputs. The Mitsubishi XD221u can be had for about $50 off eBay. Some modifications are needed to get the focus distance set correctly, but with that complete the X and Y axes are taken care of.

For the Z axis, the build platform needs to move. This was accomplished with a stepper motor salvaged from a disk drive. An Arduino drives the motor to ensure it moves at the right rate.

Creation Workshop was chosen as the software to control the Chimera. It generates the images for the projector, and controls the Z axis. The SLA process allows for high definition printing, and the results are rather impressive for such a cheap device. This is something we were just talking about yesterday; how to lower the cost of 3D printers. Obviously this is cheating a bit because it’s banking on the availability of cheap used parts. But look at it this way: it’s based on older technology produced at scale which should help a lot with the cost of sourcing this stuff new. What do you think?

Anodized Phone Mount For Your Bike

There’s a slew of apps out there for tracking your bike rides. If you want to monitor your ride while using the app, you’ll need it securely affixed to your bike. That’s where [Gord]’s No Dropped Calls build comes in. This aluminium mount was hand milled and anodized, which gives it a professional finish.

The mount consists of 3 parts which were machined out of stock 6061 aluminium. The plans were dreamt up in [Gord]’s head, and not drawn out, but the build log gives a good summary of the process. By milling away all of the unnecessary material, the weight of the mount was minimized.

Once the aluminium parts were finished, they were anodized. Anodization is a process that accelerates the oxidization of aluminum, creating a protective layer of aluminium oxide. [Greg] does this with a bucket of sulphuric acid and a power supply. Once the anodization is complete, the part is dyed for coloring. If you’re interested, [Gord] has a detailed writeup on home anodization.

The final product looks great, puts the phone within reach while biking, and prevents phone damage due to “dropped calls.”

Encoding Data in Packet Delays

If you’ve ever been to a capture the flag hacking competition (CTF), you’ve probably seen some steganography challenges. Steganography is the art of concealing data in plain sight. Tools including secret inks that are only visible under certain light have been used for this purpose in the past. A modern steganography challenge will typically require you to find a “flag” hidden within an image or file.

[Anfractuosus] came up with a method of hiding packets within a stream of network traffic. ‘Timeshifter’ encodes data as delays between packets. Depending on the length of the delay, each packet is interpreted as a one or zero.

To do this, a C program uses libnetfilter_queue to get access to packets. The user sets up a network rule using iptables, which forwards traffic to the Timeshifter program. This is then used to send and receive data.

All the code is provided, and it makes for a good example if you’ve ever wanted to play around with low-level networking on Linux. If you’re interested in steganography, or CTFs in general, check out this great resource.

Dancing Mandelbrot Set on a FPGA

This FPGA based build creates an interesting display which reacts to music. [Wancheng’s] Dancing Mandelbrot Set uses an FPGA and some math to generate a controllable fractal display.

The build produces a Mandelbrot Set with colours that are modified by an audio input. The Terasic DE2-115 development board, which hosts a Cyclone IV FPGA, provides all the IO and processing. On the input side, UART or an IR remote can be used to zoom in and out on the display. An audio input maps to the color control, and a VGA output allows for the result to be displayed in real time.

Dancing Mandelbrot Block DiagramOn the FPGA, a custom calculation engine, running at up to 150 MHz, does the math to generate the fractal. A Fast Fourier transform decomposes the audio input into frequencies, which are used to control the colors of the output image.

This build is best explained by watching, so check out the video after the break.

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